By Jose Lopez-Sanchez of Dead Curious.
The Sasquatch! Music Festival’s Yeti stage sits at bottom of the Gorge Amphitheatre, but San Fermin is feeling at the top of the world right now.
In the span of less than two years, the Baroque-pop ensemble – led by composer and multi-instrumentalist Ellis Ludwig-Leone – has gone from playing for a couple dozen people to evening slots at major music festivals.
With its second album, Jackrabbit, released in April and several North American tours (as well as a recent European tour) under their belt, this eight-piece band has found its stride and personality on-stage – something that’s reflected in their growing status with audiences and critics alike.
“We played that first record for so long and for so many shows,” vocalist Allen Tate says, a rich baritone voice belying his youth. “It’s nice to change it up and check the pulse of what people think.”
I spoke to Tate a few minutes before San Fermin were set to perform at the festival near the Columbia River.
How are things different on your end with Jackrabbit?
The first record had to be shaped into a live show, and that was a challenge. A lot of the songs on this new album we played while we were on tour, and Ellis really wrote them with live performance in mind; this one really feels ready out of the box. Everything is clicking on stage, and the songs feel a little more conducive to being played in front of an audience.
How long did it take to write this album? The band has been on the road pretty consistently for the last two years.
It’s funny – Ellis wrote the second record right after we signed our deal with Downtown [Records], back in January or February 2014. We hadn’t even been a band for very long, and he went away and wrote the majority of the album. We started to do some of those songs live, and those early versions changed, of course.
Right before the Courtney [Barnett] tour back in the fall, Ellis went back through and really hacked apart the songs again, and worked on them more. We did all the recording in three to four weeks with Peter Katis in Connecticut over the summer.
Have you had any jitters or nerves in making the transition from small, intimate shows just last year, to playing huge festivals this time around? You’re playing in front of tens of thousands of people; how has that affected you?
To be honest with you, I think most of us rise to the occasion and feed off that energy.
On a personal level, you can’t pick out the faces of the people in the crowd at these big shows. It might actually be a little easier to deal with. [Laughs] When you play for the twenty-something people that showed up to your show, and no one else did, it has to be good and you might start over thinking it. I guess the big crowds don’t bother me as much.
Safety in numbers, right?
Yeah, exactly. [Laughs]
You just returned stateside from your first European tour. How was the band received by audiences over there?
It was interesting, because we got there and played our very first show on the day that Jackrabbit was released – so if people had it, they had the album for, at most, a few hours. We played over there right after playing all of our shows for the hometown crowd, and the hometown crowd is always a great show; everyone is a familiar face, and receptive, and it’s friendly. To go in and play for people who hadn’t heard it yet was a little scary, but it was definitely nice. By the time we came back to the U.S., we had eight or seven shows under our belt, and so we were already kind of clicking.
Going back to those hometown shows, San Fermin was invited to play with the Metropolis Ensemble at the Lincoln Center. That is such an achievement for any musician. How was that for you?
It was unbelievable! [Laughs] It was surreal – I mean, you’re looking out at traffic, standing on the stage at the Lincoln Center and thinking about all the people who have played there before you. Like, it’s all just incredible. I was probably more nervous about that show than any other ever. Of course, it adds on to all that my mother got a table at the front row and cried during the majority of the show. Nothing like having your mom crying in the front row during your performance. [Laughs]
How do you keep busy during those “off” moments on tour? How do you stay sane?
You know, most of us hadn’t toured a whole lot when we started this last year. Now we’re pretty productive as a band, and a lot of us are writing our own music. I’m writing a ton of stuff, Charlene [Kaye] is doing some of hers, Mike [Hanf] our drummer is working on some music, and Stephen plays with a band called Great Caesar; everyone is pretty much working in the car. We’re all much more focused, whether it’s on San Fermin or personal stuff, but all definitely staying busy.
What are you working on, personally? What can we expect from you in terms of sound and style?
It’s definitely more sparse than San Fermin, which I mean, Ellis set the bar pretty high. [Laughs] Basically, I went away by myself to Copenhagen for about three weeks and started writing some stuff i wanted to do for myself. Now I’m at the point that I have some demos and we’re ready to record. Ellis is going to arrange and produce the album for me. It’s nice to have the immediacy of the San Fermin while having another album to work on at the same time. It’s really good for me.
I know we talked about your hip-hop fandom a couple of years ago. Have you been able to catch any of the big rap acts at any of these festivals?
Yeah, we’ve been seeing Run the Jewels all around the place.
We saw Joey Bada$$ – can’t remember quite where. I really love his record.
Before any of us were doing music for money, I was friends with this guy named Bas, and now he’s on J Cole’s Dreamville Records. We’ve seen him a couple of times while we’ve been on tour.
But unfortunately, we’ve been so busy we haven’t really been able to see as much of anything as we’d like to, including today – Kendrick is closing out Sasquatch, and we won’t get a chance to see him. We’ve got to leave immediately after our set!
What are your plans as a band for the summer? Are you continuing to tour through the end of 2015?
We are pretty much going to be on tour through the end of the year. There’s been a good response to the record, and we want to keep riding that. We’ll take a couple of weeks off, but then we have festivals around the world – Osheaga, then Leeds, and a few others. We have a couple of shows with Alt-J over the summer, and then a few with Lord Huron. Once the fall kicks off, we’ll be back out on another tour again.